From fighting to farming: The rise of the Kivu coffee

By Dede Monfiston

Sifa and her children. Kivu coffee has given her renewed hope that the children can go to school and have a better life.

When I landed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the first question that came to my mind was, “How can a country be so rich in natural resources but its people so poor?” Many of those who dared visit or work in the country would likely ask that, too. DRC’s natural beauty is amazing but the endless armed conflict that has gripped the country has taken a toll to its people and resources.

My first trip to DRC was in 2012 when I managed a new development program in northwestern Congo which is close to the Central African Republic (CAR). I felt overwhelmed by both the challenges and the potentials. Are the people even aware of the vast opportunities around them? How can an outsider like me help? Is background and experience in non-profit organizations enough? The answers to questions in my head were not that promising.

When my assignment ended after nearly two years, I went home. My next posting sent me to Iraq but Congo kept haunting me. After a year in Iraq, I decided to find a way back to Congo. I got lucky – another organization hired me and my work focused on agriculture and roads infrastructure in eastern Congo.

During the first three months, my interest in building something that would help the Congolese people for long term deepened. Agribusiness always kept me interested but I did not know how, where and with whom to start. Then one day, a guy came to my office exploring support for former combatants. I found it truly interesting and promising. I started talking about the project with the decision makers in my organization exploring ways to help. It never went anywhere, unfortunately. It was quite a suspense on my part as my contract was also nearing its end.

Fresh hopes. A woman works at the coffee plantation with her child. The project enabled families to try these options and to look at the future with bright promise for their children.

While at home early in the morning, our security guard handled me a business card from the cooperative guy asking to meet me. Curious, I decided to pay him a visit. He expressed his alarm that I will soon leave. He said, “Dèdè we don’t want you to leave. We need you and we want to offer you an opportunity mutually beneficial for you and for us.” The guy turned out to be Gilbert Makelele, the president of the coffee growers cooperative. It answered my question how to start.

After my contract, I went back home to spend some quality time with my family as I figured out potential business concepts. With my family’s blessings and support, I came back to DRC to support the coffee cooperative.

This time I have a lengthy chance to visit the coffee fields, talk to the cooperative members and learn the basics of the green beans business operations. I got introduced as a partner and business development strategist. It was both exciting and daunting. I have to do my job so I won’t let this people down. I need to get them connected to buyers around the world and enjoy the fruits of their hard work.

The cooperative is composed of more than 5,000 members under Gilbert Makele’s lead as president. More than a third of the members are women, with many of them coming from the Congolese Army and other armed rebel groups who have decided that they have enough of the fighting and want to focus on raising their children well.

Starting anew. Coffee-growing has allowed women combatants to shift to a new journey with their families.

The Groupement d’Intérêt Economique Coopérative des Planteurs et Négociant du Café du Kivu (GIE CPNCK) was created in 2012 by a group of young entrepreneurs with strong social responsibility and eager to help sow peace in the beautiful region of Kivu. Operating in the greater region which includes the Masisi, the south and the north Kivu, the cooperative today has more than 5,000 members composed of farmers, women, widows and former combatants.

One of them was Kitumani, 35, who lived in Idiwi Island. She spent five years in the army and describes the experience as horrible. Her expression said it all. An orphan at 12, Kitumani said she had a very difficult life. She got married at 23 and have five children. Now she is a coffee farmer and a breeder. She told me, “I learned to endure and how to survive life’s tough challenges.”

Sifa’s husband died in the Lake Kivu bringing green beans coffee illegally to Rwanda. The trip through the river is always dangerous and most of the people use rickety boats. To be able to earn for her family, she decided to join the cooperative and work properly to avoid the risks that led to her husband’s death.

Apilline Katambara Pendeza is the president of the Widows Association of the Idjwi Island. Her husband was also among those who braved the risks in the Lake Kivu. Apilline has her own coffee plantation and decided to join the cooperative to market her coffee. She hopes that, “With coffee growing, we can aspire for a better life for our children”.

The community now works together towards achieving quality life for their families.

When his father died and nobody can send him to school, 30-year old Koko joined the Congolese Army. His once-normal life was turned upside down. When an opportunity to leave came, Koko seized it and now works as a driver in the cooperative. Married for 11 years now, Koko is the president of the Ex-Combatants Association.

With the mission of being the catalyst for an innovative change, the cooperative aims to see the coffee growers freely in a fair, prosperous and environmentally friendly rural world. It has set objectives to improve the quality and quantity of the coffee production of its members; search for a niche market for its specialty coffee and improve the living conditions of its member and their communities.

It has always striven to implement its vision of a more just future reflected in the culture of its deep values: transparency and accountability; quality work and autonomy of coffee growers; respect for human dignity and protection of the environment.

Gilbert Makelele is bringing coffee growers and workers together to put Kivu coffee in the world map.

Since 2013, the GIE CPNCK set up the program “Peace Around Coffee and Cocoa in the Kivu” to assist the ex-combatants and their leaders, commonly called “warlords,” and to contribute to the stabilization of the Masisi area through agricultural socio-economic activities, coffee and cocoa combined with vegetable and livestock.

It was decided to start these activities in the red zone. These ex-combatants, determined to change their way of life, struggle to survive from the meager products of their fields and small livestock while waiting for their first harvest of coffee this year. The big challenge is to harvest the cherries, process it and have the coffee green bean ready for export. Some basic equipment is needed. We then need to find a market for the green bean since the local market is very limited.

There are many existing coffee cooperatives in Congo and Gilbert and colleagues are hard at work of creating the confederation of the cooperatives. The cooperative was created on 2012 and restructured in 2014. It dreams for the Kivu coffee to one day be sought by millions of coffee drinkers around the world. You can help make it happen. It will encourage more combatants to lead a life of peace with their families, bring stability in their communities and their beautiful country.

Note: The Democratic Republic of the Congo, also known as DR Congo, DRC, DROC, Congo-Kinshasa or simply the Congo, is a country located in Central Africa. The DRC borders the Central African Republic and South Sudan to the north; Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania to the east; Zambia and Angola to the south; the Republic of the Congo to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the southwest. It is the second-largest country in Africa by area and eleventh largest in the world. With a population of over 80 million, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the most populated officially Francophone country, the fourth most-populated nation in Africa and the eighteenth most populated country in the world. – Wikipedia

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About the blogger: Dede is a happy family man who is a seasoned humanitarian experienced in development and emergency work. His quest to make a difference through projects such as health, water sanitation and hygiene, livelihoods and economic development took him to Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean regions. Besides a degree in Animal Sciences and Agribusiness, he has a Master’s Degree in International Management from Thunderbird School of Global Management. He speaks fluent English, French and Spanish.
Contact email: dedemf@global.t-bird.edu

 

A celebration of full time motherhood: Running the house is rocking fun!

By Sikhonzile Ndlovu

Sikhonzile or Skhoe to family and friends found her bliss taking a break from humanitarian work to being a full-time mom and wife. There’s fun and joy doing it!

3 March 2017 saw me leave the house at 5 am and head to Target stores in Gaithersburg, Maryland to wait in the line for the new Nintendo Switch in sub-zero degree temperatures.

This was such a proud moment in my life because I have never been clearer on what makes me happy and my purpose in life. I was one of two women in the line.

The few men around me asked if I was a gamer. I told them I was buying it for my 15-year old son. One of the guys said ‘Wow! He must really be a good boy.’ I said my children are boss!

It has been a year since I took this giant leap of faith! May not sound so big to someone else but to me it certainly has been life changing. I resigned from my job after nine straight years as a women’s empowerment advocate, packed the family’s bags and got on a plane to start a new life in the so called ‘land of opportunities’ the USA. One thing I was certain about as I got on that plane was that I wanted to dedicate time to my family, rest, and just enjoy life whatever that means. I have not regretted this decision.

I remember telling a friend of mine that I was finally going to be a woman of leisure. She could not hide her shock! She said ‘Skhoe you are so young, you should find something to do’. I am just surprised that our society doesn’t seem to appreciate that one can be something without necessarily having a full-time job. Have we become a people that define people’s worth based on professional engagement? Just asking!

Isn’t it a joy raising future leaders of the world? Who can argue and win with Sikhonzile on this? Yes, it is!

Just the other day a fellow church mate asked me what I do and I proudly said ‘I work for my family. I am a wife and a mother’. I could see the baffled look on her face! I then explained that I support my family and cater for their every need. Then the next question was, ‘so what exactly do you do?’

I used to be of that mindset too in the past. I never understood the great role that mothers play in this modern capitalist world. I thought all they ever do is sit and tweak their fingers the whole day, eat, sleep and let their brains rot! I have always viewed high sounding job titles as a measure of self -actualization.  But my experiences in the past year, have changed my thinking. I feel that most of us mothers don’t realise how much we are contributing to this world by just being there for these future leaders.

When one moves to a new place there are obvious adjustments for the whole family. Imagine your children coming from school to an empty house, in a new city, with no friends or family around. Who do they share their fears, successes and everyday experiences with? With the neighbor who will need ten minutes to just understand what they are saying?

My family will never forget how our son missed the school bus on his first day of school. Initially we got out of the house ahead of schedule, then the driver told us she was going to drive around and come back. Being a mother I then told my son to go back into the house and have his breakfast. When we came out the bus was gone. I had to ‘make a plan’ of course. If I wasn’t there who was going to make the plan?

You still can find use of those rock-killer heels … and get a wow from your children.

A few days ago I drove to three shopping malls in different parts of Maryland just because my son wanted a particular brand of sneakers. When I eventually found them, you should have seen the happy look on his face. So tell me, do I need to find something to do?

And the occasional trips to meet the counselors and teachers to just try and understand the curriculum. And the awards ceremonies and talent shows of course. These are a highlight because I dress up with my rock killer heels. The look on my daughter’s face when I walked into a talent show rehearsal at her school was priceless. She was beaming from ear to ear! She thinks we are friends… (rolling my eyes).

And guess what! I have learnt to braid her hair. When I told one of my sisters, she said ‘since when Skhoe?’ I may sound like a cheap skate, but do you want me to pay $200 for her braids and miss out on a bonding moment? When I say, ‘a daughter is a baby who grows up to be a friend’ I mean it. In the past I was too busy and missed out on opportunities to talk, laugh and just let life be. I am however, often subjected to those stories about her ‘on, off, on, off and on again’ friends.

In her book, ‘Mom and Me and Mom’ Maya Angelou recalls how during a difficult time in her life she called on her mom to fly from San Francisco to Stockholm just to support her. She says, “This is the role of the mother. Not just because she feeds, loves and cuddles a child…but because in an interesting and eerie way, she stands in the gap. She stands between the known and the unknown.” Sounds familiar?

Being head of the Spousal Unit is mastering the job of a one-woman team. It’s a great skill to learn.

Besides being a mother, am also a wife! Just the other day I was telling my husband that I should add ‘Head of the Spousal Unit’ to my name. He asked how many people are in my unit. It doesn’t matter, the important thing is that I am the head!

My job description includes being a ‘wardrobe consultant, psychologist, massage therapist, meal planner, sounding board and my favourite editor in chief’ among many others. I am also a partner when my husband needs to think things through or someone to give him perspective. And yes, I joyfully run to and from the dry cleaners every so often before and after major trips and engagements.

The other night I sat up past midnight because I had to prep my husband for a major US Congress testimony. After editing, I made the poor guy do the speech eight times. Literally! Call me queen of mean but when he came out of those Senate Chambers, he had a spring in his step! Keeps my brain active.

People who have worked in gender circles would ask why someone so committed to women’s empowerment would then leave their job and ‘give up their independence’. But nothing has been more fulfilling than hearing my children sing in the house, cheering them on, looking at their school reports, just sitting together every evening, telling jokes and laughing about everything and nothing.

The former FLOTUS Michelle Obama showed the world that playing that important role of mother and wife does not reduce one’s status in society.

 

Independence as a woman is enjoying the fulfillment in motherhood and in running a happy household. There are many ways to define it but for Sikhonzile, family comes first.

Sikhonzile is a gender, media and communications specialist, mother and wife. She is currently taking a break from full time work.